A survivor of the 1985 Bradford City fire says the judge who presided over the inquiry into the tragedy has used “a bully pulpit to dismiss legitimate criticisms” by rejecting what he described as “conspiracy theories” about its cause.
Martin Fletcher, whose father, brother, uncle and grandfather died in the Valley Parade blaze, has hit back at what he describes as a “barely plausible and wildly inaccurate attack” by Sir Oliver Popplewell over his 2015 book on the subject.
In a letter to The Yorkshire Post earlier this month, the retired judge said the people of Bradford had to endure a “period of uncertainty” after Mr Fletcher wrote that the fire was one of nine that occurred at businesses owned or linked to the club’s then-chairman Stafford Heginbotham.
The book criticised the way the Popplewell Inquiry was carried out as well as the actions of West Yorkshire Police before, during and after the fire, which killed 56 people.
West Yorkshire Police voluntarily referred itself to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, who in January this year ruled out the possibility of a new inquiry into potential misconduct by officers.
The Home Office has now rejected a further request for an independent review, saying officials were “not convinced” there was a public interest in establishing an inquiry.
All I have ever sought on this terrible journey were credible answers and, once more, Popplewell has failed to provide them.Martin Fletcher
Sir Oliver wrote this month: “After every disaster there are always conspiracy theories - this one is no different. There are people out there who still believe that Elvis is alive.”
Describing Mr Fletcher’s book as “sensational” and its serialisation in a newspaper as the product of ‘sloppy journalism’, he questioned why Mr Heginbotham’s insurers would have insured Valley Parade or paid out on the previous fires if they were suspicious.
Responding in a letter, Mr Fletcher wrote: “All I have ever sought on this terrible journey were credible answers and, once more, Popplewell has failed to provide them.
“It was my book that detailed the stand was insured, a fact that was met with flat denial when the newspaper he has condemned for ‘sloppy journalism’ raised it with him.
“Now, he claims previous fires were known to insurers and presumably counsel, but fails to explain why, if so, they were not disclosed to the inquiry, inquests, or civil case.”
He added that, contrary to the former judge’s claim, compensation was not paid to victims of the fire and their families until after civil liability for the blaze was determined in February 1987.
Sir Oliver, who has praised the “quiet dignity and great courage” of people in Bradford after the fire, was criticised in 2011 for saying that the families of those who died in the Hillsborough disaster should “move on” and stop harbouring “conspiracy theories”.
Mr Fletcher wrote: “As with a similar attack on the Hillsborough campaigners in 2011, Popplewell has used a bully pulpit to dismiss legitimate criticisms as ‘conspiracy theories’.
“He has clearly implied I have no human rights to raise any concerns as an adult and openly denigrated me for thinking otherwise. He must realise his duties as a former public servant do not allow him carte blanche to judge over the public.”
He added: “In recent weeks the Grenfell fire opened up old wounds. However, forthright community demands for credible answers made me a proud, adopted Londoner.
“Popplewell, to put it into context, concluded his inquiry in about the same time it’s taken to agree the terms of reference for Grenfell. So, ask yourself perhaps where was this professed care for Bradford and its citizens 32 years ago? When it was needed.”
Sir Oliver declined to respond in detail to the letter but said: “The recent decision of the Home Office to reject Mr Fletcher’s demand for a further inquiry gives a clear indication of their view of his numerous allegations.
“And I can understand how distressing it must be for him now to have to acknowledge that the truth has rather spoilt a good story.”